Let your voice be heard Featured

9:45am EDT July 22, 2002

Dee Aufuldish, executive director of the Wickliffe Area Chamber of Commerce in Lake County, thought she knew the concerns of business owners in her area: work force development, transportation and daycare, for example.

Through the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, however, she gained a tool to help validate her thoughts and begin assisting business owners to take action on those issues.

GROW, or GrassRoots Ohio Works, is a cooperative effort of the Ohio and local chambers to seek out business owners who have the desire, but not the time or resources, to make their voices heard on legislative and regulatory issues.

“Having worked in a local chamber before, I learned two things small business don’t have an excess of, and that’s time and money,” says B.J. Wiberg, director of the Ohio Small Business Council and local chamber relations for the Ohio Chamber.

In 1997, Wiberg created the GROW program as a way to analyze the needs of business owners throughout the state and to solicit their input on legislative and regulatory issues. Local chambers provide volunteers to interview business owners on company demographics and concerns regarding local and state issues. Wiberg then tabulates the data and returns it to the chambers.

He’s also able to use the information to measure input from businesses on state issues. Business owners rank their interest in a half dozen or so legislative areas, and the state chamber sends them information — and solicits input from them — on their top two concerns. That way, business owners don’t get inundated with information on issues about which they don’t want to hear.

“You can only yell, ‘The sky is falling,’ so many times,” Wiberg says. “After a while, they get numb to that. So it becomes a very targeted grassroots program.”

He’s used the responses to testify on state issues before the legislature.

“The whole point is how we use the network to gather valuable information not based on census stuff that’s 10 years old,” he says. “We take fresh data to the regulators or legislators to help them understand: If you do this, the likely impact on business owners is going to be this.”

Local chambers such as Aufuldish’s use the local information to decide what issues to address. Since work force development was the primary concern in her area, her chamber has met with school representatives to offer input on skill needs.

The chamber directed efforts on another key matter — knowledge of candidates, issues and officials — by questioning candidates about how they would address the top concerns on the GROW survey and by sponsoring a mixer at which candidates could talk with local business owners.

Other chambers in her area are sharing the information and working on ways to coordinate efforts, an added benefit Wiberg encourages.

“Whenever I can, I try to get chambers within House and Senate districts or within a county to do this together because it strengthens their bonds,” he says.

He just started the GROW program in Fairfield County, where four chambers are participating.

Kathy Lowrey, outgoing president of the board of the Pickerington Area Chamber of Commerce and marketing coordinator for Buckeye Sports & Orthopedic Specialists in Fairfield County, says she was fascinated to see the common concerns businesses share.

“My business is health care. One would not automatically believe a doctor’s office has a whole lot in common with a flower shop,” she says, but all businesses face similar issues, such as tax structure and hiring and retention. “So clearly there are a lot of commonalties. The GROW program will give [us] quantitative and qualitative data to help my local business community wrap its arms around and understand what’s happening to business in my neighborhood.”

The program’s timeliness — considering recent term limit issues — also appeals to Lowrey, who is on the board of the Ohio Small Business Council. Having a solid voice for business owners will become more important, she says, as turnover increases in the state legislature.

As of late last year, Wiberg had used the GROW program to partner with 22 local chambers around the state. Through their members and state chamber members, he’s able to access nearly 600 owners of small businesses — defined as those with 400 or fewer employees — to bring their views to legislators and regulators.

“It’s just like everything in life,” Lowrey says. “You don’t really understand how to make a difference or how to make an impact until you talk to somebody else and you understand they have the same experience. Once you organize and you cooperate, then you’re actually able to do something about it.”

To encourage implementation of a GROW partnership in your area, contact your local chamber. For more information about GROW, contact Wiberg at bwiberg@ohiochamber.com or (800) 622-1893.

At the ‘Crossroads’

A symbol of the past, present and future roles of commerce in Ohio, as depicted in a 16-foot sculpture constructed of materials processed by Ohio manufacturers, now stands in front of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce’s downtown Columbus headquarters.

Columbus designer/sculptor Stephen Canneto created the vision of the past by using Ohio limestone for the foundation and a bronze sail shape. The aluminum open-wire frame represents the rise of modern technology, like a computer-aided drawing. A stainless steel hemisphere at the top opens partly to reveal green glass that is lit at night, “like a seed breaking open, capturing the energy of light and the promise of our future,” Canneto says.

The sculpture, called “Crossroads of Commerce” and presented by AEP as a gift to the chamber, was no small undertaking.

Canneto says approximately 30 Ohio businesses took part in the project. From initial design drawings to the final unveiling before Ohio dignitaries in December, erecting the sculpture required obtaining permits and determining how to anchor it safely [eight feet under ground for the bronze side, three feet for the aluminum side, in case the engineers among us are wondering].

For more information or to see pictures of the sculpture, visit the chamber’s Web site at www.ohiochamber.com.

Work force news

Looking for updates on the Governor’s Workforce Policy Board?

Visit this area of the Ohio Chamber’s Web site: www.ohiochamber.com/legislature/workforce.html.

The board, led by a majority of business members, will provide policy guidance to the governor in developing a five-year strategic plan for work force development as mandated under the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. The act, which takes effect July 1, authorizes a new work force system to replace the Job Training Partnership Act and other provisions of federally funded job training programs.

To find out more about the board’s structure, members and upcoming meetings, click on “Ohio Chamber members on the board” from the above Web address.

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor and statehouse correspondent for SBN.